Acting Together to Build Nonprofit Capacity
By DeShele Dorsey Taylor
The sage advice, “we can do more together, then apart” has echoed in the minds of leaders throughout philanthropic history. The idea of collaboration is intriguing, often yielding incredible benefits for communities, return on investment for funders, and expansion of services for partners. However, the task of making collaboration effective across multiple organizations is a tall order that requires commitment and patience. During this session, we explored the intricate details of what makes a new initiative, Hunger Volunteer Connection, successful based on insights and learnings from more than a year of planning and implementation.
Hunger Volunteer Connection is an initiative that harnesses the expertise of six national organizations to drive strategic volunteerism in the fight against hunger by providing nonprofits and volunteers with access to training, capacity building resources, and an interactive website.
Create a common agenda. There are multiple pathways for accomplishing the mission and vision of any initiative. Effective collaboration hinges on setting clear and specific objectives. If the objectives are too vague, you can create confusion. If the objectives are too lofty, partners may find it difficult to identify how they can make a difference. Keep the objectives simple but compelling to draw potential partners to the table.
Establish a strong team. From the hundreds of thousands of potential community partners which ones should be invited to join your collaboration? This isn’t a contest! It is an opportunity to carefully select a handful of organizations that have the credentials and experience to complement each other and more effectively achieve shared results and outcomes. This a critical step in building a collaboration. Sufficient time should be available in your planning efforts to properly vet potential partners. Questions to consider are:
- What organization can add value to the initiative?
- What expertise is needed for long-term success?
- What organization has access to the stakeholders you want to engage?
- What resources and assets are needed to support the initiative’s goals and objectives?
It is equally important that your organization conducts a self-evaluation. Is the timing right? Will your executive leaders be supportive? Are you financially sound? What is your organization’s appetite for risk or failure? Any organization pondering a collaboration should reflect on these and other questions before accepting an invitation.
Define clear roles and responsibilities. While partners will be working on the same goals and objectives, each organization’s execution plan will be customized to their unique skills and expertise. Remember the aim is to complement not duplicate efforts. With this in mind, every partner should have an agreed set of parameters for how they will contribute to the initiative and steps should be taken to minimize turf wars, mission creep and any misunderstandings that may arise.
Establish protocols. How will the collaborative work together? What will be the standards of operation and partnership? Protocols should be developed early to establish trust, strengthen relationships, and create accountability among partners. Protocols should cover all aspects of partnership from reporting lines and data collection to information sharing and communication activities.
Establish opportunities for an early win. Hunger Volunteer Connection has a three year time horizon to achieve many of its goals. So, how do you demonstrate progress and recognize interim accomplishments? Your initiative should have “small wins” intentionally built into the implementation plan. For Hunger Volunteer Connection, it was creating and distributing a set of signature tools for the anti-hunger community. Each tool, including VolunteerMatch’s Program Improvement Tool, was released over the course of a six month period with benchmarks for getting the hunger fighting community to access and use the tools. The signature tools have been a big hit and instrumental to helping nonprofits with capacity building for their organization. To date, the four signature tools have been used by over 1,000 organizations. An impressive start!